Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday Read Online (FREE)
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It was the late first century AD and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Rome’s most influential power broker, its greatest living playwright, and its wisest philosopher, was struggling to work.
The problem was the ear-shattering, soul-rattling noise that poured in from the street below.
Rome had always been a loud city—think New York City construction loud—but the block where Seneca was staying was a deafening cacophony of disturbances. Athletes worked out in the gymnasium underneath his suite of rooms, dropping heavy weights. A masseuse pummeled the backs of old fat men. Swimmers splashed in the water. At the entrance of the building, a pickpocket was being arrested and making a scene. Passing carriages rumbled over the stone streets, while carpenters hammered away in their shops and vendors shouted their wares. Children laughed and played. Dogs barked.
And more than the noise outside his window, there was the simple fact that Seneca’s life was falling apart. It was crisis upon crisis upon crisis. Overseas unrest threatened his finances. He was getting older and could feel it. He had been pushed out of politics by his enemies, and, now on the outs with Nero, he could easily—at the emperor’s whim—lose his head.
It was not, we can imagine from the perspective of our own busy lives, a great environment for a human to get anything done. Unconducive to thinking, creating, writing, or making good decisions. The noise and distractions of the empire were enough “to make me hate my very powers of hearing,” Seneca told a friend.
Yet for good reason, this scene has tantalized admirers for centuries. How does a man, besieged by adversity and difficulty, not only not go out of his mind, but actually find the serenity to think clearly and to write incisive, perfectly crafted essays, some in that very room, which would reach millions upon millions and touch on truths that few have ever accessed?
“I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing,” Seneca explained to that same friend about the noise. “I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within.”
Ah, isn’t that what we all crave? What discipline! What focus! To be able to tune out our surroundings, to access one’s full capabilities at any time, in any place, despite every difficulty? How wonderful that would be! What we’d be able to accomplish! How much happier we would be!
To Seneca and to his fellow adherents of Stoic philosophy, if a person could develop peace within themselves—if they could achieve apatheia, as they called it—then the whole world could be at war, and they could still think well, work well, and be well. “You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,” Seneca wrote, “when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning sin.” In this state, nothing could touch them (not even a deranged emperor), no emotion could disturb them, no threat could interrupt them, and every beat of the present moment would be theirs for living.